of the advantages of living outside the National Park is that when I
want to go for a hike I can do so in solitude. We live amid the
hills and valleys of rural Wales, surrounded by sheep farmers and
little else, and so when I set off this morning, I did so with only
the two dogs for company.
is our own dog, a brown curly haired rascal called Finnbar; the other
is a hard wired spaniel named Oscar, a neighbor's dog we look after a
couple of days a week for his working owner.
was a hard frost last night, and the morning has dawned clear but very
cold. I cross our six acre pasture, thinking landowner thoughts; eg,
wondering if the horse paddock will ever dry out, and making note of
all the trees down from recent windstorms- a thirty foot Alder is in the
middle of the river and will give us firewood next year, not to mention
work for the chainsaw and log splitter. Ah well, it keeps me fit at
splash across the river which is finally low enough to ford again.
Oscar the hard wired spaniel is living up to his name, frantically
trying to find a stick that I can throw for him to retrieve. He
tries with all his might to believe the sticks are shot birds but as
his owners don't hunt he lives in a constant state of self delusion.
Sad. Our dog tries to humor him but I can see his heart isn't in it.
What Finnbar likes is bones, as old and dry as possible; fortunately
the woods are full of ancient sheep carcasses. The three of us
consequently are shut each in his own separate world, which is by
far the best way to take a walk in the hills in my opinion.
climb up to the 'Crossroads', a place where five separate paths
diverge. It's a beautful clear sunny day for a change; after weeks
and weeks of nothing but rain it's like a gift and I decide to climb
to the top for a view over the valleys. The dogs are agreeable so
long as we're moving somewhere. Finnbar trots along, on the lookout,
and Oscar divides his time between the search for the perfect stick,
and flushing the occasional pheasant. When one explodes from a
covert with a muted thunder of wings, he races along underneath
yelping hysterically. I smile, imagining that he is crying 'Shoot!
come to the end of the path, which is barred by an old iron stock
gate, held in place as most of them are by a length of binder twine.
I undo the knot and let the dogs through, for it is lambing season and
most of the sheep are off the fields; even so I carefully tie the
gate closed again after us- essential country etiquette. The way
forward runs along the side of a high ridge, and the footing is
treacherous because of the frost. The dogs, of course, being four
footed and considerably younger, make nothing of the steep grade, but
I have to go slowly, anchoring myself with my stick and watching
where I put my feet. Far below I can see the neat cluster of
rectangular farm buildings and hear the grumble of a tractor, but
otherwise it is silent.
reach the other side without much mishap, and run up against another
seven bar gate. Oscar scoots underneath like a greased eel, but
motioning Finnbar to do the same gets me a puzzled frown and a look
that clearly says I ought to know by now that such antics are beneath
him. With a sigh I begin to pick at yet another binder twine
descendant of the Gordian knot.
the other side is a track that must be very old. It's graded as wide
as a single line highway, and very steep with what must once have
been a packed base of shingle. Now it is rutted by the run off from
many active springs, and at one point becomes a sheer stretch of ice
that I have to traverse by skirting the verge. Once long ago there
was a large quarry at the summit, and somehow I believe they brought
ox wagons loaded with stone down this very track. I pause to catch my
breath and try to imagine how in the world you could brake a loaded
wagon on this slope – perhaps with the oxen hitched at the rear,
resisting the downward pull? The Roman Army was here once and
this might be a remnant of their engineering know-how. Looking over the
side of the track I can see more recent traces of former settlers.
Covered in soft green moss like so many stacked footballs lie the
remains of two small cottages with only low walls remaining, the rest
scattered by time and invading trees. An elderly neighbor told me
once that a woman and her four children lived in one during the last
war, and I wince imagining the solitude and isolation during a Welsh
dogs are eager to get to the top and race ahead, while I follow as
best I can. The sun is higher now, and my fingertips are beginning to
thaw, which is welcome. Finally we are at the summit, and the world
opens up around us. The valleys stretch away into the distance,
dotted here and there by doll size clusters of farm buildings. All
along the horizon march the mountains of the Brecon Beacons range, merging
into the Black Mountains that stretch to Herefordshire. This morning
they are all covered in a dazzling white snowfall against the deep blue
of the sky. Overhead the buzzards circle slowly and for a moment I
wish I had brought my camera. A foolish notion, for no camera could
capture the panorama, the silence, the pure cold air, the sunlight
highlighting the smooth green of the close grazed pastures seen from above.
dogs and I circle the summit, bounded on the right by newly installed
taut wire fencing, the posts of which are driven all along the
outside perimeter of a much older dry stone wall. I look at the size
of the fallen boulders that lie to either side of the fence line and
marvel that even two men could have lifted each one into place. It is
tempting to wonder just who built the wall originally, for what
remains is deep buried and grass grown. Indeed it is well known that
farmers hereabouts go to great pains not to allow anything of
historical significance to remain standing to attract hikers or
archaeologists so it is possible to give my imagination full rein.
we are back at the wagon track, and regretfully I start downward. The
dogs will be wanting their lunch and there are always chores to do in
what remains of the day. Half way down, however, a flash of white
catches my attention, and up a footpath that leads off to the left I
see a cluster of snowdrops, tiny pure white blooms that only appear
during February for week or two. These clusters of flowers do not
occurr naturally , so someone must have planted them at some time. I
make my way up the path and find the foundations of another ruined
one must have been quite extensive. I can see the remains of what
were probably sheep pens and storage buildings, and several interior
rooms. The parts of wall that remain show signs of being laid with a
lime and sand mortar, so this is no casual habitation.
Impossible to imagine what the original building looked like for any
beams or wooden componants have rotted to dust long ago, and the
trees, mostly quick growing ash, are indifferently tumbling the walls
that remain. The snowdrops, which must have once formed part of a
garden, have now multiplied to form a carpet that spills over the
remains in a way that suddenly gives this site the air of an abandoned
pick my way downward back to the main path, and from nowhere a line
of poetry drifts into my mind,
cares for her own ruins, naught for ours.
Nothing is certain, only
the certain spring '*
Burning of the Leaves' by Robert Laurence Binyon